What a difference one player can make
NBA history is full of transcendent players who have been able to elevate a team from mediocrity to respectability almost single-handedly. The 1969-70 Milwaukee Bucks spring to mind as a team that was lifted to 29 more wins by the arrival of a rookie named Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But for this 2014-15 Detroit squad, the player who has raised them to new heights has done so simply by his departure. Incredibly, the Post-Josh Smith Pistons are 4-0. Even before their Friday night conquest of woeful New York, some pundits were already predicting better days ahead.
However, since only one of the four recent wins has come against an opponent with a winning record (a Cleveland team that is currently in turmoil), it may be too soon to get in line for those playoff tickets. So if we must come back down to earth, why not gaze again into the crystal ball of the next ten games to behold what the future may bring in wins and losses?
Take a look ahead
After going 3-17 through their first 20 contests, Detroit has since played .500 ball to reach 9-23. Jodie Meeks has been available for the last 10 games, contributing to six victories. The next 10 will feature an even split of home and away battles, with the opponents ranging from the 2014 NBA Champion Spurs to the inept Philadelphia 76ers. While it seems unlikely that the Pistons could stretch their win streak to 15, could they continue to win half of their games?
Game 33 (Sun., Jan. 4): Kings at Pistons
Detroit downed Sacramento 95-90 in December in a match that featured the best (21 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and five blocks) and the worst (seven turnovers) of Smith in front of an organization that supposedly coveted his services last summer. The Kings were minus their best player (center DeMarcus Cousins, who is averaging 23.8 points and 12 rebounds per game), so they also will field a different starting line-up for this game. Sacramento is 2-9 without Cousins; they are 12-10 with him. Currently 1-3 on a four-game road trip that has seen them humiliated by Boston and barely eking out a win over lowly Minnesota, the Kings should be vulnerable.
Game 34 (Tues., Jan. 6): Pistons at Spurs
On the "Twelfth Day of Christmas" the NBA schedule maker presents Detroit with the reigning NBA champs. San Antonio has been badly bitten by the injury bug, and sports only the seventh best record in the Western Conference. Kawhi Leonard is out indefinitely with a hand injury and Tony Parker has missed five games of late due to a strained hamstring. Nevertheless, the Spurs are deep, so expecting to steal a win from them in Texas is unrealistic.
Game 35 (Wed., Jan. 7): Pistons at Mavericks
Dallas won at the Palace three weeks earlier, and has since fortified its roster with the addition of former Celtic point guard Rajon Rondo. The fast-draw Mavs have too many weapons for the Pistons to silence, so grabbing a victory in the second game of a back-to-back is an unlikely prospect.
Game 36 (Fri., Jan. 9): Hawks at Pistons
Atlanta is competing with Toronto for the Eastern Conference’s best record, even though the only major upgrade from last year’s 38-win squad is a healthy Al Horford. Perhaps the fact that they are third in assists and fifth in field goal percentage contributes to how consistently Coach Mike Budenholzer’s Hawks are winning. A Detroit victory would be a major coup, but don’t count on it.
Game 37 (Sat., Jan. 10): Nets at Pistons
If the men from the Motor City are going to make a playoff run, Brooklyn is exactly the caliber of team that they must be able to beat – especially at home. A loss would be a strong indicator that those hopes will be dashed. The Pistons made a respectable showing in a 110-105 loss in New York last month, so reversing that outcome seems possible.
Game 38 (Mon., Jan. 12): Pistons at Raptors
A trip to Toronto is not far for Detroit, but the top team in the East will not give them a warm welcome. Since the Pistons lost by ten at home before Christmas, this match will be a tough challenge. A win would be fantastic! However, the Raptors have not lost at home since early December, so a loss is far more realistic.
Game 39 (Wed., Jan. 14): Pelicans at Pistons
The NBA’s anointed next superstar Anthony Davis will be coming to town, giving the Detroit faithful an opportunity to trumpet for our own burgeoning behemoth, Andre Drummond. Can the "Big Penguin" squash the "Promising Pelican"? Drummond shows no signs of being a scorer of Davis’ caliber, but he is the superior rebounder. New Orleans has been playing .500 ball and has defeated some quality opponents. This game may give us one of the best indicators for whether the Pistons have legitimate postseason aspirations.
Advantage: Pistons (narrowly)
Game 40 (Fri., Jan. 16): Pistons at Pacers
After a slate of six tough opponents, Detroit finally faces another losing team. It was a day after Christmas victory at the Palace over Indiana that kicked off the Pistons’ current win streak. A repeat performance on the road certainly should be possible.
Game 41 (Sat., Jan. 17): 76ers at Pistons
If Detroit had not lost to Philadelphia at the Palace in early December, gifting the 76ers with only their second win of the season, this contest would seem like a sure thing. Philadelphia has since won road games at both Orlando and Miami, so they are still capable of embarrassing unwitting foes. But revenge for the earlier loss seems like a more probable outcome.
Game 42 (Mon., Jan. 19): Pistons at Hawks
Unfortunately for the good people of Atlanta, they will not get the opportunity to welcome Smith back to town when Detroit comes calling. (They will have to wait until March 3 to get their JSmoove-fix when Houston visits – assuming he is still playing then for McHale’s Rockets.) This will be a really tough foe for the Pistons to face on the road.
What can we expect?
Given the strength of the schedule they will face in their next 10 games, a 5-5 record would be a very solid performance by Detroit. By way of comparison, the four teams they have beaten during the current win streak have an average winning percentage of .362. Currently, the next 10 they will face are winning at a .549 rate. If the Pistons falter against any of the lesser lights (Kings, Nets, Pelicans, Pacers, 76ers), then they will have to make it up against the league’s elite. Since four of their road games are against those strong playoff-bound squads, making up any ground in that way will be very difficult.
Can these Pistons still make the playoffs? Or are they destined for another return to Lotto Land? The next 10 games could give us a clearer picture.
What are your predictions for Detroit's next 10 games? Vote in the attached poll and then share your thoughts.